Auburn political science faculty lead national certification for elections workers
Trust in elections, and the people who run them, is essential to fair and free democracy. In the 1990s, no official certification program for election administrators existed, until Auburn University and The Election Center partnered to professionalize election work.
Auburn University’s Department of Political Science worked with The Election Center in 1994 to create the Certified Elections/Registration Administrator, or CERA, program. The CERA program is the only of its kind to provide specialized knowledge and abilities training to elections administrators.
“Election administrators have knowledge and skills and certification that demonstrates that they’re qualified to do what they do,” said Professor Steve Brown, who teaches election history and law in the program. “It’s very important for them. It’s very important for the American people to realize this isn’t just somebody who’s out there counting votes. It’s someone that has a professional certification and knows what they’re doing.”
Shortly after the CERA program was created, election administration work was heavily scrutinized after the 2000 election, in which a Florida recount between presidential candidates George Bush and Al Gore turned the media spotlight to those who work on election day. A resurgence of shaky trust in the validity of elections was fueled by social media in 2016 and 2020.
Associate Professor Soren Jordan teaches in the CERA program and researches political parties and party conflict. He said understanding and teaching about the political landscape around elections work helps the program to rebuild trust in elections.
“The intersection of election administration and party conflict has gotten bigger and bigger over time, especially as polarization has taken off at both the congressional level, as well as in state legislatures,” Jordan said. “The certification program can really serve as a way of helping people trust these election administrators, who legitimately spend their entire lives, all day, every day, just trying to do this job well, and their approach to administering elections.”
CERA courses include the history of elections, communication, enhancing voter participation, election management, election law and more, taught by the College of Liberal Arts’ expert political science faculty.
Professor Joe Aistrup teaches courses on the history of elections. Aistrup said while Auburn faculty gain information about election administration at the ground level, administrators benefit from the knowledge Auburn brings to the table, especially as their role is under increased scrutiny.
“The attacks upon elections administrators today have some roots, and they go back in time,” Aistrup said. “This has been a position that’s been under attack. Some of those accusations of being unfair were accurate, and reforms were made accordingly. But today, our elections administrators by and large are doing probably the best job of any group of elections administrators in the world, and they’re now under attack for simply doing their job correctly.”
Associate Professor Jon Fisk said election administrators have shown resilience and professionalism in the face of controversy post-2020. He said faculty’s role is to facilitate conversations between administrators who conduct complex work to secure elections.
“I approach it as they are the experts,” Fisk said. “And I’ve tried to make and facilitate conditions where they can problem solve and exchange ideas and best practices because the answers for the questions are going to come from one another. If I can facilitate an atmosphere where those kinds of answers can bubble up or can thrive, then I’ve done my job.”
By the end of the certification program, participants develop a thorough understanding of proper electoral procedures, ethics around voter registration and participation, and historical and legal foundations of the electoral system. Participants include election directors, voter registrars, clerks, secretaries of state and more.
Professor John Morris said with each administrator trained – up to 1,000 every year in the CERA program – Auburn leads the effort to support and secure elections in the United States.
“Election administration fundamentally is a form of public administration,” Morris said. “The expertise of the faculty here at Auburn has to do particularly with how to manage public affairs and public organizations in an efficient and effective manner. And so, the kinds of things that we teach in this program are the basic skills that are needed to be good stewards of the public dollar, to make sure that the processes are transparent, that they’re lawful, and that the people who are carrying out elections are good stewards of the public trust.”